How do I comprehensively protect the intellectual property in my film and television projects? I have two feature films I am developing and a TV show that is ready to pitch to networks. I don’t want to start until I know my IP is protected.
Answer by Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer:
Thanks for the important question about how to protect the intellectual property in film and television projects. Please also see my Entertainment Lawyer Question and Answer Forum at www.filmtvlaw.com, for more in depth and money saving advice that I publish twice a month.
None of our client’s intellectual property rights have ever been stolen, whether that involves film, television, music or high tech projects. However, we are never complacent and always working to make sure that our representation of projects not only connects them to studios, networks and production companies, but also protects the long-term value of the story and underlying rights.
Copyright is certainly important, and can serve as a first step, but it is really important to understand that certain important parts of any media project are not protected by copyright law. For example, the underlying concept and idea of a film or television series is not protectable under US Copyright law. While that might not matter too much when a filmmaker is shopping a completed feature film or submitting a project to film festivals, it becomes really important to film and television development. When it comes to reality television, the problem is especially acute, because a reality television series pitch will be mostly characterized as a concept rather than a tangible form of expression such as a screenplay or a pilot.
So, then there are several ways to protect the rights when copyright does not offer a solution. One of those ways is through contract law. Contract law can fill in when copyright does not protect the project. Especially in television production, everyone involved with the producer on the project must sign a contract dealing with the rights. Most projects are not stolen by networks and studios, but instead by former business partners involved in the early phases of development.
Contract law can also protect the producer when submitting the project for other parties to review the project. However, the producer needs to balance the desire to protect the work, with the ability to get other parties to review the materials. Film and television projects are collaborative works, and you need to bring a lot of people into a production to successfully launch the project. So, non-disclosure agreements are a double-edged sword, which can both help protect a project, and can scare off potential business partners.
Another issue to carefully consider are submission releases, which are essentially the opposite of a non-disclosure agreement. Networks and studios may ask producers to sign submission releases, which essentially contractually specify that the producer will not later sue for infringement. Typically, this can be avoided by having our entertainment law firm representing your project. By submitting the project through a recognized entertainment law firm, the network or studio knows that a record has been made of what was submitted and when it was submitted, thereby protecting both sides in the case of any future dispute.
In addition, trademark can be a way to protect content in a film or television series that is not protected by copyright. However, trademark used in this way is far beyond the sort of service available through online filing services. Our firm specializes in using trademark law to extend the protection available for film and television projects.
As with any entertainment matter, please do not make a decision about complex issues without consulting an experienced entertainment lawyer first. Feel free to contact my office at www.filmtvlaw.com about a quote.
- By Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer